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NATO Retrenchment at Two Years: Not Working

Photo: Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs / CC2.0

Following Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine, NATO members collectively decided in September 2014 to refocus efforts on territorial defense. Two years later, this policy of retrenchment has failed to slow Moscow’s militaristic foreign policy, a failure that coincides with the effective abandonment of the alliance’s longstanding open door policy. It now seems increasingly clear that expansion, and not retrenchment, is the more dynamic and flexible instrument for Euro-Atlantic security.

Today, in the face of Russia’s aggressive policies, retrenchment reeks of timidity and insecurity, and does little to punish or appreciably dissuade Moscow from pursuing a foreign policy of permanent adventurism. By contrast, expansion—that is, an open door policy that shepherds willing aspirants into the Euro-Atlantic space through a true measures-based process—could compel Russia to compete in the arena of ideas rather than force, or face marginalization.

Just over two years ago, still reeling from the broader Western shock over the Russian intervention in Ukraine, NATO members met in Wales to craft a unified, Alliance-wide response to the seizure of Crimea and the still-unfolding separatist project Moscow had manufactured in the Donbas. The resulting declaration was unequivocal in its condemnation of Russia’s belligerent activities in Ukraine — and in other regions across its periphery. It proposed a variety of steps and mechanisms to shore up territorial defense: the enhancement of the NATO Response Force; the establishment of a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force aimed at rapidly responding to contingencies where NATO borders faced Russian forces; and a suite of spending and policy targets to enhance Alliance interoperability and defense, among other things.

Noticeably diminished in the 2014 declaration were longtime NATO preoccupations with Alliance expansion and faraway stabilization missions, such as recent Alliance efforts in Afghanistan. On the latter front, Western withdrawals from Afghanistan and the more immediate specter of Russian aggression in Europe have made peacekeeping an understandably quieter NATO priority. However, on the issue of expansion, the rationale for the 2014 declaration’s stoicism was less clear.

At least rhetorically, NATO is still on the hook for expansion. In the 2008 summit in Bucharest, NATO declared that aspiring members Georgia and Ukraine would someday be members. Other potential members, such Moldova, have seen their relations with NATO also gradually accelerate since the mid-2000s. While Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine received boilerplate assurances of the Alliance’s continued open door policy in the 2014 Wales Summit Declaration—and Georgia won an array of institutional sweeteners to mark its undeniable technical progress–it was clear that serious discussion of near-term eastward expansion had been shelved with Russia an increasingly apparent military menace. Indeed, earlier that year, there was quiet optimism that expansion would once again find its way back onto the top of the NATO agenda in Wales, with the mood increasingly cordial as the Sochi Olympics neared, and the memory of Russia’s destructive 2008 adventure into Georgia seen as a momentary aberration. The Russian invasion of Ukraine dashed those hopes, and the Alliance’s chief priority heading into Wales was strategic retrenchment. This past summer’s NATO Summit in Warsaw only doubled down on 2014’s inward-facing focus—and the possibility of meaningful Alliance expansion remains as distant as ever.

In the two years since NATO embraced retrenchment, the Western military club has little to show for it. The Alliance’s understandably defensive posture was chiefly meant to broadcast reassurance to potentially vulnerable member states, and to incentivize Russia to abandon its adventurist foreign policy and comply with international (and preferably Euro-Atlantic) interstate norms. Neither has occurred. NATO members abutting Russian-garrisoned regions are no more secure than they were before. To the contrary, at the 2016 Warsaw summit, Eastern European anxiety over Russian aggression contributed to the decision to establish four rotational multinational battalions in Poland and each of the three Baltic states.

Fortifying “fortress Europe” against the perceived threat of Russian aggression has done little to buttress the ailing condition of broader Euro-Atlantic security. Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine, if not as urgent or purposeful as it once appeared, remains flagrant and destructive, with little end in sight. Meanwhile, Russia has rescued Syria’s singularly destructive regime of Bashar al Assad from the edge of defeat and established a potent launch pad for projecting its military and political weight in the Eastern Mediterranean, elevating itself as a power broker in the Middle East.

Russia has deployed advanced air defense systems in Syria, the South Caucasus, and along its periphery, and nuclear capable Iskander missiles appear to be heading to its European exclave of Kaliningrad. And Moscow’s ability to project influence into Europe appears to have become more potent, not less. Despite biting international sanctions, historically low energy prices, and a significant degree of international isolation, there is little evidence that Russia’s ability to prosecute a malign agenda has been appreciable attenuated, much less arrested, by NATO retrenchment.

The failure of retrenchment matters. With this strategy, NATO has effectively jettisoned its open door policy—its most effective vehicle for strategic influence and a founding pillar of the Alliance’s very existence. Throughout its history, NATO expansion has served as an instrument for extending the frontiers of interstate norms and values that underpinned Europe’s transition from a carnage-prone postwar ruin into a paragon of transnational peace and prosperity. After the Cold War, the possibility of expansion was an enormous source of leverage. It helped the Alliance guide the transition of communist systems into functioning democracies and contributors to the Euro-Atlantic project (and no, Russia was not promised that NATO would never enlarge).

The practical utility of expansion can hardly be overstated. While the inculcation of liberalism, democracy, and free markets was no small element of the NATO enterprise, these were seen as desirable byproducts next to the overarching goal of upsetting the centuries-old European cycle of destructive conflict that threatened peace the world over. Expansion, far from a question of a country’s potential military utility or the realization of some postmodern utopian reverie, helped extend the realms of Lockean order against the chaotic volatility that had historically typified interstate affairs. NATO expansion was also a national security imperative for the United States, which had been drawn into two horrifying World Wars and, at the dawn of the nuclear age, far preferred to subsidize and police the broad contours of European security than leave the continent to its own devices.

As things currently stand, Russia has perfected the art of inoculating would-be members like Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova against NATO membership by erecting a constellation of separatist quasi-statelets within their borders. Providing creative membership pathways to these states would not only serve as a means of extending the writ of the Euro-Atlantic order, but would also serve as a kind of wrecking ball to Moscow’s costly but brutally effective separatist fabrication apparatus. Just as importantly, effectively conceding the sovereignty of non-NATO members to aggressive powers only exacerbates internal threat perceptions among members, which could trigger spiraling demands for ever-greater demonstrations of reassurance or deterrence, or spark a crisis of credibility—or both.

As tensions between the West and Russia continue to intensify, the integrity of the security architecture undergirding the decades-long European experiment is no longer a wonky policy abstraction, but an increasingly material threat to the future peace and prosperity of the Euro-Atlantic space. Retrenchment may have offered a sort of simple-seeming tonic for European anxieties about Russian machinations, but it has failed in its basic objective of undercutting Moscow’s ambitions and reach in the region. Only the restoration of a genuine, attainable open door NATO policy can undermine Moscow’s increasingly institutionalized reliance on aggression and upset its confident calculus of the West’s geopolitical decline.

The 28-member Alliance has upcoming summits in Brussels in 2017 and in Istanbul in 2018. Now is the time for NATO to reexamine its retrenchment policy objectively and reinvigorate its open door agenda. Continued or further strategic protectionism will only allow the Alliance’s challenges to compound, and contribute the ongoing atrophy of the structures that support Europe’s brittle and hard-won peace.


Michael Cecire is an international relations analyst and an International Security program fellow at New America. A Black Sea regional specialist, he has worked in a variety of political risk and public policy roles supporting U.S. national security, international economic development, and democracy promotion.